In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Devil's Hole Pupfish

One species that particularly fascinates me is the Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis), which has the most restricted distribution of any vertebrate species. This pupfish is restricted to a single sinkhole in the vicinity of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The sinkhole is about 15 meters deep, and an equal distance wide at the desert’s surface; at the bottom is a pool that is, at most, 20 meters long and 3 meters wide. The waters extend down to at least 450 feet, and are a constant 93°F – although the pupfish spend most of their time near the surface, especially on a 10-meter-long shelf no more than 30 centimeters deep. This shelf is crucial to the species’ survival, because that is where productivity (i.e., food) is highest, and where most of the fish spawn. Water depth thus becomes a crucial issue – and in the past, groundwater mining in the Ash Meadows area (before it became a refuge) lowered the water level about 60 centimeters. The threat to the pupfish eventually led to federal ruling to stop water pumping, which in turn led to a lawsuit.  Eventually, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the federal government has the right to restrict water withdrawals if they affect the water table beneath its land. Conservationists and biologists rejoiced, but some Nevadans were not so pleased; an editorial in one newspaper suggested that the solution to the Devil’s Hole pupfish “problem” was rotenone, a fish poison.

Devil's Hole Pupfish

The pupfish are managed jointly by the U.S. National Park Service, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife. I spent the 24th and 25th of September observing the semiannual Devil’s Hole pupfish count, which involved two divers (plus their safety backups) and three biologists doing surface counts. When the biologists were not working, I could lay on a temporary grating and observe the pupfish from a distance of only a few inches. They are remarkable creatures. As in many other pupfish, spawning males are an iridescent blue. However, they are much less aggressive than most other pupfish, and show little evidence of territoriality. They also are smaller than other species – their maximum length is less than two inches - and they are able to persist in a high-temperature, low oxygen, and low productivity environment. To think that they have done so in this one pool, for at least ten thousand years – the estimated time since they were isolated from other pupfish – is amazing. 
Divers Preparing to Count Pupfish

When the divers were eating lunch and resting between dives, I lay on the grating and watched the pupfish go about their business – patrolling their space, tugging at bits of food, engaging in the occasional chase.  There are less than two hundred adults now, and there is nowhere else for them to go. There are other springs and other pupfish close by – as they crow flies, less than two miles away – but as the pupfish swims, their relatives might as well be an ocean away. I thought about these fish, living out their lonely lives, isolated for the last ten thousand years or more.  What are their lives worth? Are they worth the $400,000 per year that the Park Service allocates for research and protective measures? The answer lies beyond traditional cost-benefit analyses, of course. I am hoping that some sort of eloquent answer to this question will come from my time in the desert, but for now I’ll gladly say that my heart and mind stand with the pupfish. Lying on that grate, and looking down at the pupfish – or up at the clear blue vault of the desert sky – the tenacity of those tiny creatures, their patience in the face of ten thousand years of isolation, is astounding.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Owens Pupfish

In August, 1969, Phil Pister carried two buckets of Owens pupfish away from a dying spring – the last individuals of a once-common species, pushed  to the edge of extinction by habitat destruction and predation by introduced crayfish and bass. Phil placed the buckets in his truck, drove four miles over rough desert roads, and dumped the fish in “BLM Springs,” where the pupfish survived and flourished, and where they persist to this day.  I had heard about Phil’s work on behalf of native desert fish, and had read an account of his experiences with Owens pupfish, and so, when I came to the Owens Valley, I wanted to meet him.  He’s an 81-year-old retired California Department of Fish and Game biologist, who is anything but “retired.” He’s active in the Desert Fishes Council, writes prolifically, and still teaches; in a few weeks he’s off to the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia to led a seminar on ridding high mountain lakes of introduced species. Phil’s energy gives me hope for our collective future, and for my personal one. Age, he says, is partly a matter of attitude: “Hell, I’ve known people who are still alive, but have been mostly dead for twenty years….”
Phil Pister
I met Phil at his small house in Bishop, then drove out to BLM Springs, with plans to camp, and watch pupfish. BLM Springs is in a spectacular setting – at the edge of a large marsh complex, with the ten-thousand foot eastern scarp of the High Sierra rising to the west, and the equally magnificent White Mountains to the east. The main part of the spring is perhaps twenty meters by ten meters in area, and about 1.5 meters deep; a narrow channel curves off to the east, where it drains into Fish Slough. When I arrived at the spring, I saw a few pupfish, clustered around “vents” where fresh water welled up from the bottom of the pool. But then the desert winds blew up, and the chop obscured everything below the surface. It was the sort of wind that kicks up clouds of dust, and makes you curl into yourself. I went to sleep irritable and spitting sand, but awoke at midnight, to a full moon and beautiful calm. I got up and walked down to the spring, where the reeds shivered, gently. A bat flicked across the surface of the pool, and the Sierra stood clear to the west, in a garden of silvered light. I clicked on my headlamp, and there, at the bottom of the pool, were the pupfish, each no more than a few inches long: beautiful swimmers, refugees from the Pleistocene, alive to their possible futures. I watched them for a few minutes, then went back to sleep in the warm desert stillness.
BLM Springs; High Sierra in the distance
Owens pupfish (UCDavis image)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meetings Along the Way

On September 13 I stopped off at Oregon State University to talk with Dr. Fred Swanson of the US Geological Survey and Dr. Deanna Olson of the US Forest Service. Dr. Swanson is a geologist who has worked on teams studying ecosystem processes on Mount St. Helens, and at the Andrews Experimental Forest. The Andrews Experimental Forest is a LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site on the western slope of the Oregon Cascades, and is a world-renowned center for research and education about the ecology and management of streams and temperate coniferous forests ( Dr. Swanson also has been instrumental in developing the Long Term Ecological Reflections, in which “writers visit sites in the forest to create an ongoing record of their reflections on the relation of people and forests changing together over time” ( An associated program is the Spring Creek Project, which is “dedicated to bringing together the wisdom of the environment sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.”

Near the end of my salamander and pupfish explorations I will be spending a week or more as a visiting scholar at the Andrews Experimental Forest, where I will have the opportunity to consider my sabbatical experiences, and begin the process of transforming them into a book. I also want to search for the Oregon slender salamander (Batrachoseps wrighti). Seeing a close relative of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi) in wet forest habitat more typical of salamanders will allow me to appreciate more fully the wonderful uniqueness and tenacity of salamanders that have survived in desert habitats for millions of years. Because Dr. Olson studies effects of forest management practices on salamanders, I wanted to talk with her about the basic ecology of Oregon salamanders, and how I might best find them in November.  They are not easy to find, and I will not have a good search image, so any information will help in my search.  
On the fifteenth I traveled from my sister’s home outside Sacramento to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley, to meet with Dr. David Wake. Dr. Wake is an expert on salamander systematics and ecology and has published 365 technical papers (I am only about 330 papers behind). Dr. Wake and I talked for several hours about slender salamanders, and I came away from our meeting with a better understanding of the genus Batrachoseps, and an unpublished report that will help me locate B. campi populations in the field. Although Dr. Wake is an emeritus professor, he still has a very active research program, some of which is focused on reasons for recent declines in salamander populations. Recent evidence suggests that a chytrid fungus is having a major impact on salamanders, much as it has affected many frog species.  Recently, a team of researchers revisited an elevational transect in the mountains of western Guatemala that Dr. Wake had sampled in the 1970s; they found that terrestrial salamander species once present in the thousands had completely disappeared.

Joseph Grinnell
The MVZ was founded by Joseph Grinnell in 1908. Grinnell and his students were very active researchers and teachers, and trained many of the preeminent vertebrate zoologists of the twentieth century. Grinnell was the first person to use the term “niche” in an ecological context, and developed the field notebook style that I use, and teach to my students. Field notebooks from generations of MVZ biologists are housed at the Museum, and are accessible at These volumes are used by current researchers to study phenomena such as faunal change in Yosemite National Park over the last one hundred years ( Seeing copies of Grinnell’s field notebooks, and how they are being used today, made me determined to insist that my students (especially graduate students) cultivate the ability to take good field notes, in the manner of generations of MVZ biologists.
I was raised in the Bay Area, but had not seen the Berkeley campus since 1969, at the height of Vietnam-era protests. Berkeley has changed (no more ragged street vendors selling illicit drugs), and there were fewer signs of political activism, but in other ways the campus seemed much the same. UCB is still a sprawling, vibrant, and intense place, with a swirling mass of students, professors, and whacked-out street prophets streaming along the paths. And as I walked through groves of eucalyptus and oak on a warm and sunny afternoon, the rich scents and memories of my youth came flooding back. Proust was right; memory is entrained by many things, but smell takes us back, so strongly, into our deep history.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Across the Hundredth Meridian

Loess Hills, western Iowa

Just east of tiny Presho, South Dakota (population 588), on a morning of brilliant light, I crossed the hundredth meridian. The evening before I had driven through the Loess Hills of western Iowa, a well-watered country of oak woodlands and meandering streams. Fields of corn lay cupped between gentle hills, the land painted with a palette of greens. The sky was clearing after a thunderstorm, and the air smelled like rain. It seemed to be – perhaps a little falsely – a benign world. But 250 miles to the north and west, by the time that I reached the hundredth meridian, the sense of the land had changed dramatically. The trees had disappeared, or were mostly limited to swales and north-facing breaks. The sky had gone vertical, the air was shorn of its humidity, the horizontal had peeled back toward a more planar horizon.

At the edge of the West, the soundtrack for the morning’s drive was The Tragically Hip’s “At the Hundredth Meridian”: “Left alone to get gigantic / Hard, huge and haunted…” Out near Presho, the land is hard because of the unpredictable, bitter droughts of summer, the wind-blasted blizzards of January, the aching imperatives of aridity and cold. The land is huge because the great swaths of space and undulating short grass prairie create a place where, as Willa Cather wrote, “The earth is the floor of the sky.” There is distance, and then more distance. And the land is haunted by the ghosts of the Lakota, who were pushed out of their country, and onto reservations like Pine Ridge, just to the south of Presho – and by the ramshackle, weather-beaten farm houses scattered across the High Plains, monuments to abandoned dreams. For rain did not “follow the plow,” and no amount of human initiative and determination could breed crops out of the dry soil.

                       High Plains west of Presho, South Dakota

There is nothing magical about the arbitrary line we call the hundredth meridian, but it does parallel, closely, the north-south run of a line marking an average annual precipitation of twenty inches. East of this line, as in the Loess Hills, there is moisture enough, mostly, for agriculture that does not require irrigation. But beyond the hundredth meridian, dryland farming on the 160 acres allocated by the Homestead Act to each yeoman farmer was impossible. And so, after an initial rush onto the High Plains the country began emptying out, as the immigrants went bust. It is still emptying out. Jones County, just west of Presho, lost almost 9% of its population between 2000 and 2003; North Dakota had more people in 1920 than it did in 2000.

On a morning of beautiful light in early September, when a breeze blows gently out of the west and the prairie is washed by green, after a summer of unusually bountiful rain, the High Plains seem like they would be an easy place to live. But the beauty disguises a tougher reality – that this would be a lonely, demanding home. It would take all of your energy and determination, I think, to make a life here. Still, I love the space, the emptiness, the gathering sense of the arid West. The imperatives of this aridity draw me toward Death Valley, and into the ecologies of species that manage to hang on in a world where water is so very rare.

I thought of these things as I pushed on, further into South Dakota, and then Wyoming and Montana. It was a good day for driving, a 1000-mile kind of day, when the motion was an easy, comfortable vector. On the third of September, headed west along I-90, it was as Richard Hugo had it in “Driving Montana”: ‘Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide / as the mouth of a wild girl, friable / clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost / in miles of land without people, without / one fear of being found, in the dash / of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl / merge and clatter of streams.’